Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on June 26, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Jun 26, 2022 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

June 26, 2022

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit [ready for use] for the kingdom of God.” 

This scripture is the basis for the very old African American Spiritual you just heard.* That was Mahalia Jackson singing it with the Duke Ellington Band in 1954. It is a song of looking forward and hope, an exhortation to keep steady and “Hold on!” while you do. It characterized Jesus’ insistence on looking forward, and to following him no matter how hard or hopeless things might be, and was sung by people who knew both slavery and the plow. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Over the decades the song has been often reshaped to speak for other impassioned struggles and causes, always exhorting the forward-facing endurance for staying the course as one tries to discern and walk Jesus’ Way. His hand-to-the-plow image is lasting and much loved, and whose meaning took on life for me when I actually did this in a field in Haiti once. The song adds the phrase “Hold on!”, repeatedly, and aptly so. Imagine those hard worn wooden handles in your hands; trying to ‘hold on,’ hold them up, hold steady so the plow goes straight, and guiding, hold it in good tension with the animal (or two) pulling it. I assure you, “Hold on!” is necessary and powerful encouragement! 

Though Jesus sounds abrupt in dismissing offers from several would-be followers here, he explains that one cannot put hand to plow and also to look back, you cannot do both. If you look back while holding plow handles it will try to turn over (and they’re heavy), or you will plow a crooked furrow (no reverse gear on plows nor the animals who pull them), and they can wrench to one side so suddenly that you injure your hand. I remember trying to look back to see if my row was anywhere near straight. It wasn’t, but turning to look back made it far worse! Going forward requires that you pay attention to what you’re doing, where you are going, and who you are choosing to follow.

I think that pairs well with Paul’s message in his letter to the Galatians. He is asking what you will be led by; desires of the body, also translated as materiality, or by the Spirit? I also think Paul overstates how stringently that what the body desires and what the Spirit desires are entirely opposed to each other. Our bodies are also part of God’s creation, so how can it be so at odds with the Spirit of God? Nonetheless, Paul provides a robust list of things not to do, as they lead us away from God. He follows with a list he calls the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. Paul’s two lists remind me that choosing to act from the second list is rarely, if ever, something we regret. We discern which is the action of a person of faithfulness, love, and peace. Being Episcopalians means we use our God-given capabilities to determine which to choose, which is the path of patience, kindness, generosity, etc. and we enjoy the sturdiness of that three-legged stool of ours; using scripture, tradition, and reason. 

Choosing between the lists is almost constant in our lives, and I want to believe those who say choosing something repeatedly reinforces it, at least on a personal level, be it the kingdom of God or the temptations all around us. Living our choices with the rest of the world is even more challenging, and it has always been so. The past week exemplified this struggle as we saw decisions made at national and state level which complicate or impair the choices we can make. As the old spiritual says, we have to keep our hand to the plow, and like the Galatians, seek the kingdom of God. How we love our neighbor as ourselves means responding to the world around us as faithfully and courageously as we can—and even Paul will not say it is easy. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit”, he says.

The gentile Galatians eagerly embraced the faith journey they had begun, and taking new steps for their faith had appeal. Paul is responding to this, having heard some are trying to teach that their identity in this new faith lies in things like being circumcised and adopting Jewish dietary laws. Imagine the confusion, arguments, torn between being willing to take tangible steps to show their commitment to their new faith, and the teaching received from Paul; that life in the Spirit is a transformation within.The Spirit is making them a new creation, people who are becoming more gentle, kind, generous, loving, and peaceful. None of these rely on circumcision or dietary laws. The tangible signs are in how they treat each other, bear each other’s burdens, count the stranger as a child of God. 

Whether it is new or longstanding faith, it is grown and revealed and shared by loving our neighbor as ourselves. We join Jesus on on this faith journey, and as he sets his face to Jerusalem and goes to the cross, we see before us his way of love. 

Keep your hand to the plow and don’t look back! Hold on!

*One reference from a 1917 volume described it as “A hymn of the Holiness Church, sung by the sect that believes in foot washing.”

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.